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Modernizing Attack Ads by Using Old Videos

It seemed innocuous enough at the time. The Democratic speaker of the House and one of her Republican predecessors cozy up on a love seat arranged for them at the bottom of Capitol Hill. They look into the camera, then at each other, and declare that they are really not all that different when it comes to caring about global warming.

Former U.S. Speaker of the House and Republican candidate for president Newt Gingrich speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference on June 16, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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Former U.S. Speaker of the House and Republican candidate for president Newt Gingrich speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference on June 16, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

What does Newt Gingrich think of his tender moment with Nancy Pelosi now? “Probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.”

He has good reason to fret. Scenes from that 2008 public service announcement appear in no fewer than four television advertisements now running in Iowa and can be found in numerous videos on the web, all made by rival Republican presidential campaigns and outside political groups that are trying to sink Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy.

It is the attack-ad technique of choice for the 2012 election: Anything you have said or done on film will be held against you. And its prevalence has helped make the Republican primary campaign a ferociously negative contest. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Iowa, where commercials that portray candidates in an unflattering light now account for two-thirds of the money spent on advertising for the caucuses.

It is a shift in emphasis from the days of using depressing montages of carnage abroad and social unrest, like the ads that helped Richard M. Nixon discredit Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, or the reliance on selective recitations of congressional votes that have twisted the positions of candidates running from a perch in Washington. It averts the need to shoot much, if any, new footage, and through the use of actual images and the words of the target — sometimes misleading, sometimes not — the negative message can be made to appear more credible than mere assertions.

“We don’t need to embellish with a nasty announcer,” said Steve Grand, a Republican media strategist who has helped American Crossroads, a political group backed by Karl Rove, create some of the commercials. “It’s not somebody else saying, ‘This person did something.’ There they are. See it with your own eyes, hear it with your own ears. And I think it feels more documentary than propaganda.”

Turning the candidates’ own words against them is, of course, one of the older tricks in the political playbook. But today more than ever, when a candidate’s every kaffeeklatsch, rope-line handshake, and editorial board interview is captured on camera, there is a wealth of material. With news outlets like C-Span digitizing their video archives and making them available online, old footage is easy to come by. Anyone with an Internet connection and the patience to conduct a lengthy Google search can be an opposition researcher. And the willingness of some campaigns not only to employ old film but to rip it out of context seems to be greater than ever.

According to the Kantar Media Campaign Media Analysis Group, Iowans have been subjected to commercials about candidates 17,151 times this year. Of those, 10,591 were negative. In dollar terms, the overwhelmingly negative tone of the advertising war is just as glaring: $3.3 million spent on negative ads versus $1.7 spent on positive ones.

The negativity reflects both the wide-open nature of the race and the advent of the “super PAC.” Those outside groups operate without coordinating with the campaigns and have taken on much of the dirty work of tearing down opponents.

Over the past week, Mr. Gingrich has borne the brunt of the attacks, and his support among likely Republican voters showed signs of eroding as a result.

Mitt Romney employs a small team of video- and film-savvy staff members who produce ads from three editing suites at the campaign’s headquarters in Boston’s North End. Their recent productions include one 30-second Web video that shows Mr. Gingrich telling the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2010 that “Governor Romney, in his business career, created more jobs than the entire Obama cabinet combined.” Another, titled “Newt and Nancy,” ends with the words, “With friends like Newt, who needs The Left” splashed on the screen.

This Romney ad team also produced one of the more misleading commercials produced by a presidential candidate this year. That spot, called “Believe in America,” featured Mr. Obama quoting an associate of Sen. John McCain. “If we keep talking about the economy,” Mr. Obama says, “we’re going to lose.” The ad makes it appear as if the president, who was speaking in 2008 about his rival’s campaign, was referring to his own political fate in the 2012 election.

Rick Perry’s campaign went after Mr. Obama with a similarly deceptive ad that takes an out-of-context approach to the president’s remarks that American businesses have been lazy about attracting foreign investment.

But as Mr. Romney has learned, the in-your-own-words game is a double-edged sword. He has been subject to relentless skewering by the video staff at the Democratic National Committee, which, like Mr. Romney’s team, trawls the Internet for footage.

The committee’s most attention-grabbing ad was one called “Trapped” that showed Mr. Romney making contradictory statements on issues like abortion.

Mr. Romney also saw himself skewered in a commercial produced by a little-known political group called American LP. It contains footage of him welcoming volunteers to the Salt Lake City Olympics in French. Along the bottom are what are purported to be subtitles but are actually quotes from previous statements that Mr. Romney has made, like his comment that he is politically independent.

One benefit from producing such provocative ads is that the groups and campaigns broadcasting them are able to generate publicity while spending little or no money buying time on television. The Romney “Believe” ad was broadcast on a single station in New Hampshire just a handful of times. And the Democratic National Committee spent only about $20,000 to broadcast “Trapped.” The ad with Mr. Romney speaking French was barely shown at all.

But they all got plenty of play on cable news and in blogs.

In that sense, the use of old footage in campaign ads mirrors the larger shift in the way voters are getting their campaign news. Some strategists see it as an extension of the way the primary process is evolving as it moves beyond Iowa pizza restaurants and church basements and is played out almost exclusively on national television.

“Voters are looking more discretely at the messages being presented by campaigns, and I think that’s one of the reasons the debates are more impactful this time,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic media strategist. As voters grow more wary of messages relayed through official filters, Mr. Devine added, “I think the ad makers are observing that and saying, ‘Well, why don’t we move toward this in our own advertising?’ ”

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